BB2, 14th November 2016, 9pm
“I need to slip into the lives of other people.”
When Natalie, a confused, lonely barrister, with all the trimmings of an ideal middle class life, admits this to herself it is a revelation.
BBC Two’s adaptation of Zadie Smith’s novel NW is about unhappiness, aspiration and the trappings of social mobility in a class-riddled Britain.
Best friends Natalie and Leah lead lives growing further and further apart. Natalie has “made it” from her modest council estate beginnings to the wealthy life of a barrister in North London.
“I am the sole writer of the dictionary of my life” she tells herself and her success is the product of a dedication and resilience learned over time. She is a black woman in a male dominated industry but, if you choose to succeed, Natalie believes you can decide your own destiny.
Leah lives in a small flat, “pretty nice for a council”, with her French-Algerian husband Michel and their cocker spaniel. Leah is pregnant and doesn’t want to be. Suddenly children and the conversations about children are inescapable.
NW questions our obsession with “the good life”. Leah is happy with her husband and their home and wants to live in the now. She is a saddened by the idea of having children and watching them grow up as she grows old.
Natalie has what we are told we should want: the large, modern home, the stylish wardrobe, the dream job and two adorable children. But her profound unhappiness leads her to dangerous pursuits that she herself cannot understand.
Upon the novel’s release in 2012, Smith told BBC Radio 4 of the danger with the “assumption that rising to a middle class life is the aim of everybody, and the final example of human happiness”.
The irony of course is that, “when you meet middle class people, so many of them are intensely miserable.”
Britain distinctively obsesses over class. It is evident on the streets, in our homes, in our work and schools. It dominates our media and fuels our politics.
NW explores this through the small confines of the community it represents. Natalie may not be geographically far from Leah, or the council estate which they once called home, but metaphorically they are miles apart.
Natalie’s assertion that people who succeed are the ones who want it most is dishonest and both Leah and the audience know that.
The story of Felix, a recovering drug addict and aspiring mechanic, and Nathan, a homeless man resigned to the miserable realities of crime and deprivation, each identify the unshakeable burdens which the trappings of class and race can have upon those caught up in their grasp.
Zadie Smith’s novel is a story for the now and, in the paranoid society of Brexit Britain where race (immigration) and class (the elites versus the ordinary folk) define our national conversation, the BBC’s adaptation feels perfectly timed.